Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

What's Innate and What's Not? And Should We Care?

Does it make sense to debate whether traits are innate?

Philosophers and psychologists often debate about whether our beliefs, emotions, desires, values, etc., are innate or whether they are learned. But does this type of debate make sense? Paul Griffiths, Stefan Linquist and I have argued that it does not!

It is very common to hear psychologists and philosophers say that some idea or belief is innate. Psychologist Paul Bloom, for instance, has argued that we have an innate disposition to be dualist, while, following John Mikhail, psychologist Marc Hauser has proposed in his noted book Moral Minds that we have an innate moral faculty (for a good illustration, see also Joshua Knobe and Paul Bloom’s debate on Bloggingshead.tv).

The contrast between innate and learned psychological traits has naturally a very very long history. The contrast is already present in Plato’s Republic. You might remember that Plato argues that the souls of men are made of different metal (gold, argent, bronze): in substance, the idea is that people’s behaviors often express their inner natures; these behaviors are innate and are largely impervious to people's environment. Good for you if you have a soul made out of gold, too bad if your soul is made out of bronze (my case, I am afraid)! Of course, whether our psychology is innate or learned was also at the core of the controversy between Descartes and Locke.

The fact that the notions used by philosophers and psychologists to think about the ontogeny of our minds have been around for 2,500 years should make us skeptic that these notions are really appropriate for the job. After all, one would think that the way we study and understand development should have made some progress over the centuries!

And indeed, biology and the philosophy of biology suggest that the contrast between innateness and learned is very confused. Following debates in ethology most biologists and philosophers of biology reject the notion of innateness (for a classic formulation of this point, see, e.g., Paul Griffiths’s What is Innateness?).

But if the notion of an innate trait really has no scientific value, why do philosophers and psychologists (all very clever people!) still debate about whether psychological traits are innate or learned? This is the very question that Paul Griffiths, Stefan Linquist and I have been investigating experimentally. We have shown that the idea that some behaviors express animals’ and people’s deep nature is part and parcel of a folk theory of development (maybe a cross-cultural theory, but so far we have no evidence about this). (You can read a draft of the paper here). If that’s true, the notion of innateness is a folk concept that illegitimately masquerades as a genuine scientific notion, and debates about innateness are pseudo-debates! Psychologists should stop looking for innate traits and philosophers should stop debating about ideas; beliefs and values are innate.

Edouard Machery is a philosopher of psychology and an experimental philosopher in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh.


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